Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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January 18, 2007
the Basket case

Here is, I do believe, one of the most wonderful blogs ever created:
How to Write, by one "bgmole" or Gherardo Bortolotti.

bgmole's blog has thus far blogged nothing more and nothing less than every paragraph, one paragraph per day, in sequence, in Gertrude Stein's circa-1929 essay, "Saving the Sentence."

According to my calculations, given the number of paragraphs in the essay, bgmole will complete his task on or about April 19, 2007.

What will he blog then? I am hoping that he'll move on to blog each paragraph of The Making of Americans. All too brief samples of the confounding, hypnotic, rolling plains of language in that book can be found here and here. MoA goes on like that for over 900 pages.

However, given the title of bgmole's blog, he will probably simply work his way, in order, through the remaining seven essays in Stein's 1931 volume of the same title. "Saving the Sentence" is the first essay.

What is the purpose of the How to Write blog? Joke? Art project? English language lesson?

Whatever the intended purpose, it ("it" = reading and probably writing the blog) is one great way to try to absorb Stein's essay, to break up and chew on each proposition. Similarly, David Antin suggested making sense of Stein's "intensive" style prose texts through the insertion of line breaks. The always impressive Marjorie    Perloff describes Antin's idea here.

The HtW blog takes Antin's idea one step further. The reader is forced to take a one-day break after each statement. bgmole takes advantage of the way (I think) the blog writing form automatically tends to atomize or force words spatially as far apart as possible from one another on the same page (this fascinates me) (though the technology of the form also encourages links "through" each word to other pages, such that absent text is paradoxically brought closer).

Best of all, however, the HtW blog is the only place on the internet I can find that provides, in its January 5, 2007 entry, the proper, prominent, singular treatment of the sentence that, as I decided this week, might be the most delightful one that Stein ever wrote:

A frog is just like Basket for all the world.

What a funny, incomprehensible, charming, opaque, ambiguous, scientifically inaccurate and irrefutably true thing to say.

The internet(s) teach us the following about Basket:

  • There was in fact a Roman-numeraled series of Baskets.

  • Paul Bowles on: "She had that awful dog. She had to take it out for a walk all the time."

  • James Laughlin on:
    Then in the afternoon we'd tour the countryside in her little Ford with Gertrude, who drove, sitting in the front seat and with Alice B. Toklas, while I sat in the back with those two awful dogs -- Basket, who was a white poodle, and Pepe, who was a nasty little black Mexican nipper. Trying to control the pair of them back there, I saw very little of the Savoie countryside.

  • Stein on:
    Lilacs lilies vases Voltaire and Basket. It would be easy to imagine a conversation. . . . Suppose all the characters got together to explain to Basket the meaning of roundabout or of Thursday. It would be, if not easy, at least not impossibly difficult, and it would have been enchanting.

  • A 1999 Salon article stated: "Gertrude claimed that the rhythm of her dog Basket's breathing taught her the difference between sentences and paragraphs."

  • Salon got it a little bit wrong. What Stein actually claimed was:

    Sentences and paragraphs. Sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. I can say that as often as I like and it always remains as it is, something that is.

    I said I found this out first in listening to Basket my dog drinking. And anybody listening to any dog's drinking will see what I mean.

    (from Stein's essay "Poetry and Grammar")

    I prefer Stein's version (drinking not breathing) because it's weirder.

  • Stein told a New York Times reporter in 1934 that her dog was a great watchdog "when he thinks about it."

    But even more interesting are the thoughts the expatriate conveyed to the reporter to contrast the American and French personality types:
    Americans take their pleasure in physical activity, in rushing about,in getting more and more money, in finding new and exciting ways of expanding it.

    That doesn't interest the French. They are interested in excitement too. But it isn't physical excitement that they like. It is the exciting sensation of a new idea. . . .

    Intellectual fireworks are what excite them and what they enjoy. They don't think ever of putting their ideas into practical life as we are continually doing. The practical side does not attract them. That is what they are trying to escape.

    I can see why she moved to France.

Coincidentally enough, Stein's "Saving the Sentence" and "Poetry & Grammar" are both reprinted in their entirety in the current January-February 2007 issue of American Poetry Review.